Ever wonder what the one right way to become a mother is? Well, there’s no one right way. In fact, for many millennia, women have used all kinds of reproductive strategies to keep their genes on the planet. This is Mating Matters.
Read the full transcript below:
Dr. Wendy Walsh: I love being a mother, but if I’m going to be completely honest with you, I also sometimes hate being a mother. That’s because motherhood is all about sacrifices and the paybacks aren’t always measurable by society. A dimpled curly grin here, a warm snuggle there, a holiday singing pageant or high school graduation where your kid makes you proud. All of these are brief respite between the sleep loss, the embarrassing public tantrums, usually the kid, but sometimes the mom, and the worry – no doubt about it.
Motherhood is burdensome. Despite this, about 80% of women become mothers one way or another, and most of the others are mothers to the village.
Female: I always wanted to be a mother, always, always, always. I was always the one that babysat in the neighborhood, always loved kids and loved little babies. I wanted to have 10 kids when I was growing up. That changed once I became a mom and realized how much work was involved. But growing up that wasn’t my dream.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Welcome to Mating Matters, I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh. In this episode, “Mothers, MILF’s & Wives – Part 1”, we’re talking about women’s reproductive strategies. If you’re a woman, there are plenty of ways to keep your genes in evolution’s chain or raise the species as a whole. Women have long had plenty of reproductive choices. If they have a baby, when they have a baby, with whom they have a baby, whether that baby will survive and whether they’ll care for their own or others.
If you still believe though that love just happens and marriage and children are mostly about the luck of the draw, I want you to listen very closely. Things have changed. Since the 1930s when McCall’s Magazine put out this helpful little film – What a Housewife Must Know.
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Granted, even decades later, women’s gender roles and reproductive choices seemed pretty limited. The media perpetuated the idea that a woman’s role was to be a good wife and mother to one man for life. Even today, very deep inside some progressive career women lies some version of the dream of a house with a white picket fence, two children and a wage earning husband, because to some, that feels natural. And why not? It’s been pumped into women’s heads for a couple of centuries. Here’s a 1951 educational video on marriage.
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I hate to burst your bubble, but the idea of a nuclear family, the one with two parents, one being male and the other female living in a home with children who are biologically related to both of them while they live happily ever after, is a relatively new invention for human beings, and it’s not attained by the vast majority of people.
More natural for us is a moving encampment of cooperative care givers that may include grandmothers, brothers, friends, cousins, aunties, anyone a mother can enlist to help her out. When I say more natural for us, remember, that humanoids have been on the planet for about 4 million years. That’s how old our behavioral memory is. We’ve only been doing widespread modern farming and industry for about 400 years. Farming, by the way, was the big downfall for women because we were pulled away from our girl pack and plunked into narrow gender roles to become that barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen girl.
But we women are wired for something very different from last century’s idea of a nuclear family. And as you’ll hear in this podcast, the modern women we spoke to are behaving in many ways like hunter gatherer women in terms of their reproductive choices. The only difference is that many feel like they’re failing because they aren’t living up to that new-fangled idea of a nuclear family.
Like cave women, we are looking at our mating marketplace, making unconscious and sometimes conscious decisions about attracting, keeping or replacing mates based on how well they provide or give care. We consider the timing of our pregnancies. That didn’t begin with the invention of the birth control pill. Women all the time practiced staying away from men at certain times or putting all kinds of material inside their bodies as a barrier.
We also weighed the pressures of our fertility window against the pressure to make enough money to feed our babies. There’s no one right way to become a mother or a mother’s helper. If you’re feeling like you’re failing, I’m here to pull you off the guilt train because I think we’re returning to something more natural. And this return to what is more naturally female probably began with the advent of the birth control pill in 1962, and then with the march into offices in the 1970s. That was around the time Helen Reddy was singing “I Am Woman”.
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Let’s start with the statistics. The research of Harvard trained economist and demographer, David Foot now at the University of Toronto, shows that the big deciding factor in whether a woman will reproduce is her level of education. Graduate degrees are birth control. Yup, the more education, the less likely a woman is to have babies and she’ll likely have only one or two.
The more a couple is educated, the more likely they are to have baron nest or be childfree. And that group is growing. Childfree women were relatively rare in the 1950s, but today, make up about one in five women. Hold that thought because in a moment, I’ll explain how this is more natural for our species.
Wealthier women maybe having fewer babies because they run into fertility problems or a mate crunch in the mating marketplace when they spend a large part of their fertility window obtaining education and building careers.
On the other hand, high school educated and lower income women are likely to have children early and have more children. This may be because reproduction may seem more urgent for those with fewer life choices. They also get a jump on finding mates early and then sometimes, there are the life changing accidents.
This woman was on birth control, engaged and living with someone when she accidentally became pregnant at the age of 20. Unfortunately, the dude just wasn’t having it and he bailed.
Female: Yeah, it wasn’t in the plans. With my son’s dad, it was definitely one of those, “Hey, this would be great because we’re in love in the future,” and there was a plan and everything such as that. But then there was the unexpected blessing of my son. So, it was definitely one of those things where I realized, “Oh man, this is a lot harder.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: She says she comes from a strict family and even though she says she’s pro-choice, she didn’t feel she had many options if she still wanted her family’s support.
Female: And I knew even adoption wasn’t going to be something because my mom was very like, “I’m not having a family member live off with someone else and I’m not going to know anything.” So, they were big on that.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: She told me she finally got up the nerve to tell her mother what was happening when she was about four months pregnant.
Female: My mom would always – her bad joke, but she would always joke and be like, “Mom, I have something to tell you.” It didn’t matter what … she’d be like, “You’re pregnant,” all the time. That was like her joke. But I remember sitting her down and I was just like, “So, mom, I have something to tell you.” And she was like, “You’re pregnant.” And then it was like, “Yes.” I was more afraid of seeing my mom cry in disappointment than having her beat my butt. My dad was not thrilled. Oh yeah, my dad actually kind of lunged at me. Like he was just like, “What?” My mom was definitely my rock. I actually became a single mom. So, she was the dad in that aspect.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: The man problem. Women’s reproductive choices are intrinsically linked to the potential for male support. Either financial support so she can hire babysitters or actual paternal caregiving. And that can be a crap shoot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Anthropologists and primatologist, Dr. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of UC Davis is known worldwide as one of the most important women in science for her contributions to female evolutionary behavior. Her books, Mother Nature and Mothers and Others have always been my bibles. Here is some of her UCLA talk called Born Human; how the utterly dependent survive. You can find it on YouTube.
Dr. Sarah Blaffer: Fathers clearly have this potential to respond to babies, and you have these species where mothers need help so very much. In that case, how is it that paternal care varies so much? I mean, you have some men who are totally dedicated to their children. The Mrs. Doubtfires out there.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: The character played by the actor Robin Williams in the movie Mrs. Doubtfire was so in love with his children that even after divorce, he went to great lengths to get hired as their nanny.
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Dr. Sarah Blaffer: And you have other men, men certain of paternity who behave as if they didn’t even know they had children. How can this be?
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Bad dads still find mates. Listen to the Mating Matters episode called “The Trouble with Testosterone” to understand why. Besides testosterone though, are there other reasons why some men are good dads and other are cads? Well, for one, when there are more men in a mating marketplace compared to women, men are more likely to be monogamous and more into fatherhood. And when they spend more time with babies, their testosterone goes down and their prolactin and oxytocin go up. Men become better fathers by actively fathering.
But right now, we have an oversupply of successful women and an under supply of corresponding successful men. Thus, many men are focused on mating over child rearing. And many of them are baulking at the idea of paying child support.
Brian: “I bring home $1,626 a week and 350 go to child support.”
Female: Brian says $18,000 a year in child support for his infant son is too steep. At 29-years-old, he says he had to move back in with his parents.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And there’s another reason there’s such variance in whether men help with kids. According to Dr. Hrdy, men get lazy when the family lives in a match or a local setting, meaning with her family and friends rather than moving in with his family and friends.
When a mother lives with her man’s family, there’s less support, so he has to help. You see, grandmothers tend to invest less in their son’s children and focus more on their daughter’s kids. One of the reasons for this is because grandmothers are assured that their genes came out of their daughter, but their daughter-in-law, who knows if another man has gotten access to her hidden eggs.
This maternal grandmother preference is so prevalent in human beings that at least one government accidentally created a child welfare social policy in the form of an old age pension. According to the economist Esther Duflo of MIT, grandmothers in South Africa who received pensions turned out to have taller and healthier grandchildren when they were born to their daughters compared with those born to their sons.
Bottom line, men can’t always be counted on, and grandmothers may or may not be available. But what about those one in five educated women with no kids? Well, according to these women, they made their decision not to have children for a number of reasons. For instance, financial reasons or because they couldn’t find a mate on time.
Female: If I found the perfect partner, perhaps I would want to. I don’t have the feeling of that wanting like some women do of like, “I have to have a baby.” In the past, when I have been with partners that I felt in love with, I’ve thought about it, but it hasn’t worked out. I haven’t ever really wanted to be in a partnership and a breakup with kids involved.
Female: I could have been interested in having kids, but the guy had to come first. And I wasn’t so hell bent on having kids that I would have done it at any cost, by myself or anything like that. Like I had to have the partner that I wanted and he never showed up, at least not in time. So, that was that.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Or they made the decision because their career is so fulfilling.
Female: I guess I would say I am married to my job and some people would think that was sad. However, I think it’s great because I love the people I work with. I love the events that I go to and it’s really about my lifestyle that I love leading.
Female: I have moved around a lot in my life and I feel like I’ve put career first. So, children have never really been a goal of mine. And recently, I decided that I don’t think I want to have children. My work is very challenging, very demanding. You always have to be on mentally. It’s hard enough trying to take care of myself sometimes because the job is so demanding. It’s hard to imagine having to take care of a whole another person.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Some childfree women say it’s for ethical reasons. They want to save the planet from overpopulation. And for others, it just might not have happened biologically. This woman says she never used birth control and never became pregnant.
Female: I never consciously decided not to have children, it just never happened for me. And believe me, I worked in an industry where I knew people in IVF, where I could have gone that way. I could have gone the surrogacy way. I never wanted to put my body through it.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And psychology plays a role too in whether a woman becomes a mother. Good mothers beget good mothers.
Female: But I always knew I wanted to have kids because I thought my mom was a great mom and she made it a wonderful experience for me. So, I thought, “Well, maybe I could do this as well.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And sometimes, it happens the other way around.
Female: My childhood was great, but it wasn’t the best. I had a mom who wasn’t necessarily the most loving because she was very selfish. But I don’t think that played a part in it so much. Like I know I’d want to be different, but maybe in the back of my mind it was, I don’t know.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Whether it’s by choice or by circumstance, childfree women and men are paramount to human survival. Could this be Mother Nature’s way of creating something evolutionary psychologists call “extra aloparents”? Aloparents are adults who may not be biologically related to children, but have a big impact on their survival.
In Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s book, Mothers and Others, she makes a great case that our explosion in intelligence is linked to the stimulation and care provided by other adults, teachers, doctors, coaches, pastors, neighbors, other mothers in that mommy group, and childfree women.
Female: My cousin is a single mother and she is going through absolute hell. Her partner left her with absolutely nothing and doesn’t pay child support. So, I very much feel even more so to help them out financially.
Female: So, I just never had that absolute need to be a mother. And I think that’s because I have lots of nieces and nephews. I’m very close with them. I’ve been with them growing up and it kind of felt like that fulfilled the need.
Female: I have a niece who’s following in the same footsteps as me. So, I’m constantly mentoring her about her role in the company because she’s doing the same thing that I do. And then I have two other nieces and a nephew. So yeah, I look at them and I think of them as my own.
Female: I had moms who said, “Hey, I’ll pick up your kids so that you can do this.” Or there were times when I would pick up their kids or “Hey, you don’t feel well? Well, I’ll pick them up and take them to church and you can have a few hours to yourself and that kind of thing.” Having that support system has helped me to understand how we all need each other.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: The nuclear family is giving way to something else. In fact, for more than two decades, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, about 40% of American babies have been born out of wedlock, and the rest are vulnerable to a high parental divorce rate.
Single mothers with an aloparent village are fast becoming the societal norm. And aloparents even include that single dude hanging around and helping out single mothers. I happen to be a single mother. My personal trainer lugs our Christmas tree up the stairs every year, and he taught both my girls how to ride bikes. Thank you Troy.
I’ve also had plenty of what I call hover men, guys who hover around hoping for sex, but not before I audition them by putting them to work in my house. And women know to keep men happy and helping, they need to look good. Thus, the rise of the MILF – a mom I’d like to f***. A hot mom seeking aloparents or a better mate, and looking very attractive while doing it. Fergie knows about MILFs. She wrote her song MILF Money after the birth of her son. You got to see this video. It’s filled with hot celebrity moms in lingerie, tempting a milkman, some of them breastfeeding.
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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Even if childfree women and men aren’t giving direct care to other people’s kids, they may be doing it indirectly. They may employ parents or work in law or government making rules that support parents. So, even if you don’t have a cave woman grandmother around, you might have a female boss who helps feed your kids via a paycheck.
Female: As a mother, we have to kind of prioritize our energy into these lives that are dependent upon us. But I have one friend who prioritizes her energy into going to all these places all over the world and helping to dig wells for kids who already exist and don’t have access to clean water. I would love to do that. But for her, that’s her way of giving back, contributing to the future, making life better for so many more children than what I can do with my four. It’s just we need all kinds and we all balance each other out.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Another fascinating thing about human mothers and cooperative breeding, is that will love and raise a child that isn’t genetically ours. Think adoptive parents and step parents. Evidence of the fact that aloparents in the village are paramount to breeding, is the fact that we are one of the only apes that will hand our newborn to a stranger, say the doctor or midwife. Try doing that with a chimp.
It’s easy to imagine that last century’s nuclear family is the best thing for kids. There’s plenty of research to show that our culture doesn’t yet provide enough supports for single parents; free childcare, tax breaks for parents and adequate parental leaves. But things are changing as women and men evolve into families that may look more like our hunter gatherer ancestors than a father knows best 1950 style family.
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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Here’s an example of a single woman with three children aged 20, 14 and 2. She’s a great example of what our cave women ancestors might have chosen. How she risked her life bearing babies, how she spaced her babies, lost a baby and replaced a partner. Her maternal life began with an unplanned pregnancy in her early 20s that she chose to terminate. She later married the man who had impregnated her and later they gave birth to a daughter. When her daughter was four-years-old, this woman was nine months pregnant with her second child, a son named Kyle. The couple was excited as they arrived at the hospital for a scheduled caesarean section.
Female: I knew that when I got to the hospital and they were prepping me for the C-section and technician after technician kept coming because they clearly couldn’t hear a heartbeat. I kind of knew until my doctor came in, looked at me and said, “I’m really sorry but your baby didn’t survive.” I was given four months maternity leave. In Canada, you’re given a lot of time. I had to bury my son because he was a full term baby. I actually still think that I probably haven’t really dealt with that.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: The couple did go on to give birth to a healthy baby boy 14 months later. But soon after, she replaced her partner because he wasn’t providing. Single motherhood was hard, but in some ways easier for her.
Female: In my case, it was a different dynamic because I was the provider protector in our household. So, I was the breadwinner. So, my husband’s income was nice and certainly missed when it wasn’t there because I was carrying a mortgage, two small children, I had to get a nanny. I didn’t see him as a provider. Hence, the reason why this relationship ended.
Now, what I did get from that relationship was the physical intimacy to be completely honest and that was nice, but it wasn’t enough.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: After spending a decade as a single mother, her support system included an aloparent in the form of an on again, off again boyfriend. Then she accidentally became pregnant again.
Female: So, I had been dating my partner for about nine years on and off at the time. We were in a good period. He’s eight years younger than me, and I’d been working so hard that I had just forgot that I didn’t have a period for about two months. I decided to take a pregnancy test. For some reason, I just didn’t think I could get pregnant. I’m 44 years old. And so, I wasn’t even thinking about protection. It was just a non-issue until it became an issue, and I had a decision to make.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Her decision meant looking at these factors. She was 44, she had two children to continue to support. She had a boyfriend, but the relationship had been unstable, and she was the main provider. But get this, she was also a MILF. Her job was to look hot, young and sexy on TV. What a pressure for a mother.
Female: I am the main featured person in this show and the first thing I’m thinking is what is the impact of this pregnancy on the show? Because they hired me for the sexy person that I am. This sassy, able to do anything anywhere and travel and now I’m pregnant. And I’m doing the math saying, “Oh, I have a season to be on and I’ll have a baby who’s two-months-old, how am I going to do this?”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: This is the terrifying struggle of every mother, whether she is a hunter gatherer worried about keeping a mate while finding enough food for herself in any living children or a modern day homosapien female scrounging up resources on a TV set. The feelings are the same. The fear is equal.
Did you think about terminating the pregnancy?
Female: 100%, and for many reasons. I had weighed pros and cons. I was looking at it from a financial point of view. I was looking at it from the impact of my family, the relationship, my two older children, how are they going to feel? They were equally shocked when they knew. And I had committed to not sharing it with anyone until I had made the decision we’re keeping the baby and we’re happy about it.
But I also at 44 went to my doctor and said, “What are the tests I need to happen? What are the risks?” So many pregnancies, it’s a high risk. It’s over 50% of women over 40 that give birth to a child with some genetic defect over 40. On top of the fact that I’m highly stressed and have no time and another mouth to feed, like what is going to happen here?
So, yes, I absolutely contemplated it. So, my daughter might not have been here had I made the other decision.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And what was the thing that put you over the edge do you believe, to decide to give birth to her?
Female: I really looked at my pregnancy at that time. Really, I looked at it as a miracle.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In fact, the research shows the number one factor in whether a woman will terminate her pregnancy is maternal age. Younger women are far more likely to have an abortion as this woman did when she was much younger. Women near the end of their fertility window, believe this may be their last chance to have a baby. In the end, this 44-year-old woman has a career, a boyfriend who’s a very involved father, and three healthy children. I think she’s winning the mating game.
And when mothers do decide to raise children, the payoff according to one mom of four and grandmother, is that motherhood brings the village together. Cooperative breeding spreads love.
Female: That love that you have as a mother for your children, it’s universal. You see it in animals, in the animal kingdom. You see it in different cultures, in different ways and in different countries. And it supersedes almost everything you can think of that would be divisive.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Well, some people may think the decline of the nuclear family is a signal that society is collapsing. Social scientists like me think it’s a welcome move backward. Back to a time when women had far more reproductive choice to something more similar to our hunter gatherer days; more ability to extract resources from the environment and plenty of aloparents around to help.
This family evolution is not without speed bumps though, and this new movement to create a culture where women are more free to be well women is coming in loudly and not without conflict. It’s cloaked in the current women’s rights movement that’s sweeping the planet. And if you listen closely, it’s about women’s rights to attract a mate by how they dress to mother freely and to control the timing of their pregnancies.
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Female: A group of mothers staged a unique protest outside the pool. They gathered to nurse their children in a show of solidarity.
Female: Iran is one of two countries that requires women to cover their head in public.
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Female: Protests against compulsory hijab have gotten bolder this year and they’re all been broadcasted …
Female: Thousands gathered this morning on Manhattan’s upper west side for the second women’s march on New York City.
Male: Historic change in Saudi Arabia. Women getting behind the wheel.
Female: Our politicians don’t have a clue what they’re subjecting women to.
Female: An incredible amount of activity going on, both in our federal government and across the states to try to close the gender wage gap and to fight pay discrimination. States are especially …
Female: Last month she announced that she is asking the Federal Election Commission to approve the use of campaign funds for childcare.
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Dr. Wendy Walsh: It’s a noisy time in our evolution. Humans continue to adapt to the challenges of their environments and find ways to reproduce. Evolutionary psychologists like me never predict the future. I can tell you one thing, we’re in a time of fast paced social change.
In part two of Mothers, MILF’s and Wives, how the females in our species are adapting to our environment. An environment that increasingly involves changing technology from adoption databases to egg freezing to in vitro fertilization, and the very emotional choice of terminating a pregnancy. Cave women bodies are operating in a very high tech age.
Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeart Media. It is researched, interviewed and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh. And it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson.
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